Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 6, 2006
Celibacy can be lived with joy
Consecrated virginity is an act of faith
By ARCHBISHOP THOMAS COLLINS
Especially for the benefit of those of you who sense that you may be called by God to be a religious sister or brother, or to be a priest, I would like to offer some reflections on a spiritual reality which has played a central role in our Christian community from the time of Our Lord himself up to the present.
It has shaped the lives of countless saints, and is a significant personal commitment expected of those who are called by Christ through the Church to be religious sisters and brothers, members of secular institutes and, in the Roman rite, priests.
I am referring to consecrated virginity for the sake of the kingdom of God or, as it is commonly called, celibacy.
It used to be said of Christian celibacy that if you did not have faith, no explanation of it was possible, and that if you did have faith no explanation was necessary. There is wisdom in that saying, for it expresses the key point: Christian celibacy is essentially a personal act of faith.
I am not sure, however, that the saying fully reflects our present situation in which not only people without faith, but also many practising Catholics have a confused perception of this profound commitment, so deeply rooted in the Christian spiritual tradition, and so richly beneficial to the whole Church and, personally, to those who seek to live it faithfully.
In my own life I remember well the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass on May 14, 1972, at St. Eugene's Parish in Hamilton, when I was ordained by Bishop Paul Reding, and promised that I would be obedient to my bishop in serving where I was sent, that I would pray the Divine Office every day for the people I served and that I would consecrate my whole life in celibacy to the service of Our Lord and his people.
I thank God for these three commitments, really three facets of one commitment, which have shaped and graced my life for over 30 years.
At the time of Our Lord, however, despite a few exceptions such as John the Baptist, celibacy was not common at all, and it is not really part of the Jewish tradition, out of which the original apostles came.
As he journeyed through the Holy Land with his disciples, Jesus effectively created the pattern for Christian celibacy through his own life commitment to a mission totally dedicated to the service of God and his people. Our Lord's reference in Matthew 19 to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven has guided later disciples who followed his example of celibacy.
St. Paul offers further reflections on the significance of the commitment in 2 Corinthians 7, and himself is one of the early examples of a disciple dedicated through celibacy to the service of the Lord.
Imitation of Christ
Over the centuries more and more of those called to be priests and bishops adopted celibacy, since the consecration to the Lord in celibacy is so much in harmony with the consecration to the Lord in those priestly ministries, and at least in the Western portion of the Church it came increasingly to be expected, and eventually required, of those called to priesthood. It is, of course, essential to the life of those in religious orders.
For celibacy to be lived rightly, it must be lived in the imitation of Christ, and as an evangelical witness pointing to the world to come, a point emphasized by St. Paul. As Our Lord indicates in Matthew 22, marriage is a reality oriented towards the earthly journey.
The fact that some Christians live the life of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is a witness to the world beyond, where there is no marriage, and which is the goal of all, whether married or not. Christian celibacy is an affirmation of faith in the heavenly kingdom, which is one reason why it must be lived daily in a spirit of prayer.
For celibacy to be the true witness that it is meant to be, it must also be lived with integrity in the context of the Gospel counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Celibacy gives a certain freedom from family responsibilities, and that freedom must be used rightly, in generous availability for the service of the wider family of faith. It calls for a spirit of obedience expressed by St. Francis de Sales in the words: "Ask nothing, and refuse nothing."
Celibacy is intended to be a kind of evangelical abandonment of one's whole life to be freely and joyfully at the disposition of God through the mission given by the Church, for the service of the people. We who have made this commitment need regularly to examine our consciences to ask if we are living it with integrity, so that the freedom gained through it bears fruit in prayer and the service of others.
It is sometimes said that celibacy is a gift and that is true. But in many ways it is as much a gift which you give to God, as one that God gives to you.
A Christian adventure
As with other great life-transforming commitments, such as marriage, celibacy is not always lived well. But to learn about the reality of any sublime commitment, we need to look at those who have lived it to the full, and to the end.
For insight into the adventure of Christian celibacy, lived in a spirit of joyful abandonment in God's service, look to Pope John Paul, Mother Teresa, John Henry Newman, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis de Sales, St. Catharine of Siena and countless other saints.
Like those saints, if you are being called to give your whole life to the Lord through a celibate vocation, you will find that God will help you to live it joyfully day by day, until you see him face to face.
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